Obituary: Noel Neill, actress, dancer and singer

Actress, dancer and singer best known as the first live action Lois Lane in Superman. Picture: Getty
Actress, dancer and singer best known as the first live action Lois Lane in Superman. Picture: Getty
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Born: 25 November, 1920 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Died: 3 July, 2016 in Tucson, Arizona, aged 95.

As the screen’s first Lois Lane, damsel in distress and intrepid reporter at the Daily Planet newspaper alongside Clark Kent and his alter ego, Superman, diminutive, baby-faced Noel Neill carved out a place in film history.

The Man of Steel and his sidekick were brought to cinemas in the 15-part Superman live-action serial (1948) ten years after Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s comic-strip creations made their début in the first issue of Action Comics.

Kirk Alyn played Clark Kent, with Tommy Bond as bow-tied photo-journalist Jimmy Olsen, who had been added to the stories for the 1940 radio serial The Adventures of Superman. The film serial, with Neill portraying Lois as bright, assertive, quick-witted and humorous, proved so popular that it was followed by the 15-episode Atom Man vs Superman (1950). This time, the city of Metropolis was threatened with destruction by villain Lex Luthor (played by Lyle Talbot).

Neill was disappointed to be passed over when the long-running Adventures of Superman began on television in 1952 with Phyllis Coates playing Lois Lane, alongside George Reeves as Clark Kent and Jack Larson as Jimmy Olsen.

However, after the first series, Coates was committed to other work and Neill took over the role for the remaining five runs and 78 episodes (1953-8) – as well as starring with Reeves and Larson in a 1954 public information film, Stamp Day for Superman, to promote US Savings Bonds.

For many viewers, Neill was the first working woman to be seen on television and, with a father in newspapers, she seemed born to the role and said she simply played herself. When the programme ended following Reeves’s death from a gunshot wound, recorded by the coroner as suicide, she bowed out of acting.

“I just figured I’d worked enough,” she said in 2006. “I didn’t have any great ambition. Basically, I’m a beach bum. I was married, we lived near the beach. That was enough for me.”

Noel Darleen Neill was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the daughter of David, news editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and LaVere (née Gorsboth), a vaudeville performer.

She caught the performing bug from her mother, appearing on stage from the age of five and, three years later, acting in dramas on Minneapolis radio stations. Neill attended dance school with the close-harmony singing group the Andrews Sisters and, after adding singing to her own repertoire, performed in theatres and at county and state fairs.

On leaving Central High School, Minneapolis, in 1938, she looked set to follow her father into journalism and wrote articles for Women’s Wear Daily. However, a holiday with her mother in southern California when she was barely 18 resulted in an audition that led to Neill singing with Bing Crosby’s band at the Del Mar racecourse, which the crooner part-owned. He heard Neill and introduced her to his theatrical agent brother, Larry, who signed her up to a film contract with Paramount Pictures.

A string of bit parts followed, starting in Mad Youth (1940) alongside another vaudeville performer, Betty Compson. Before finding fame in the Superman serials, she appeared in more than 40 films, most significantly taking the role of aggressive school newspaper reporter Betty Rogers in seven of producer Sam Katzman’s “Teenagers” musical comedies, from Junior Prom (1946) to Campus Sleuth (1948).

She also appeared in many Westerns and was directed by Howard Hawks in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), alongside Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe, Vincente Minnelli in An American in Paris (1951), starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, and Cecil B De Mille in The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), with James Stewart and Charlton Heston.

After giving up acting, Neill joined United Artists’ television department to do PR work, which included answering Tom Selleck’s fan mail.

With 1970s re-runs of Adventures of Superman, she found herself rediscovered and in demand at fan conventions. She also took a cameo role as Lois Lane’s mother, Ella, with Kirk Alyn as the reporter’s father, in the 1978 Superman film starring Christopher Reeve, although most of her performance ended up on the cutting-room floor.

Later, there were further cameos – on television as Alexis in an episode of Superboy and in films as Aunt Lois in Surge of Power (2004), about a comic-strip fan, and Gertrude Vanderworth, dying wife of Lex Luthor, in Superman Returns (2006). Neill also recorded commentaries for the Adventures of Superman Season 2 DVD release in 2006.

Two years earlier, she had been awarded a Golden Boot for her appearances in Westerns and, in 2010, a statue of Lois Lane modelled on her was unveiled in the Illinois city of Metropolis, which had long referred to the actress as its First Lady. She retired to the city two years later.

Neill’s first marriage, to make-up artist Hal Lierley in 1943, was annulled the following year. Her subsequent marriages, to William Behrens (1953-62) and Joel Taylor (1962-9), both ended in divorce. She had no children.